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California School District Defines Own ‘Anti-Discriminationâ€TM Policy

by NewStandard Staff

In an emergency meeting called under pressure from students, parents and teachers, Westminster school board approves new gender rights wording, but opponents remain unsatisfied.

Apr. 20, 2004 –

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In an attempt to comply with California state law while still not allowing students to define their own gender, the three-member majority of the Westminster Board of Trustees adopted a new anti-discrimination policy for their school district.

The move comes during a standoff between state education officials and the Westminster board that threatens to cost the district millions in state funding. Citing religious beliefs, three board members had previously refused to change their district's anti-discrimination policy to protect from discrimination people who do not conform to traditional gender norms. Under pressure from students, parents, teachers, and state officials, the trustees held an emergency meeting on April 12 in which they approved a new policy, and state education officials accepted the wording.

The new Westminster policy, written with the assistance of socially conservative attorney Mark Bucher, who was hired specifically for the purpose of helping reword the district’s rules, does not allow students or staff members to define their own gender, reports the LA Times. Instead, only biological sex or the discriminator's perception of a person’s sex will be taken into account when complaints are reviewed. The new definition, according to the Times, states the "perception of the alleged victim is not relevant to the determination of gender."

Though education officials say the updated wording technically complies with state law, it is obvious to many that the new language violates the spirit of state law prohibiting discrimination based on gender. According to the AP, California anti-discrimination law, updated in 2000, defines gender as "a person's biological sex or perceived identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not it is different from that normally associated with a person's sex at birth," and was written to prevent harassment and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

State officials have said they are reviewing the district's new policy in order to determine whether or not Westminster is now in compliance with state law.

However, many people in the district, including two of the trustees, do not agree with the board’s attempts to determine its own definition of anti-discrimination law. Trustee JoAnn Purcell, of the two-member minority on this issue, fears that if the state accepts the board’s new definition it will "open the door to a lot more problems."

Purcell is hoping the state Senate will approve a bill that Senator Joe Dunn plans to introduce, which would allow the state superintendent to take over the school district. Dunn told the Times, "We should reject any attempt by them to rewrite California law in a way they are comfortable with. They need to stop playing games here and come into compliance. We can't make an exception for one specific school district."

However, State Superintendent Jack O'Connell is not entirely satisfied with Westminster's policy. In a letter to the district’s board, he expressed concern that "it appears the district may intend to deny protection from discrimination and harassment to a class of students that the law clearly protects," reports the Associated Press.

Students who say they have experienced gender-based discrimination in schools across California have been speaking out against the Westminster board members’ stance. Recounting harassment, abuse and fear, the students emphasize the need for clear anti-discrimination policies that will protect them.

"School can be really unsafe when you don't fit into other people's gender stereotypes," Moi Garcia, a student who experienced harassment in elementary school and middle school in Orange County, said in a press release announcing a speaking event about the issue.

At the event, another student, Mattye Dane, talked about being verbally mistreated by a teacher for wearing shorts and a T-shirt instead of a swimming suit during a swimming class, reports the AP. Dane recounted the teacher saying "your people would never make it in the real world." Though Dane says she told administrators about the teacher’s remarks, nothing was ever done about it. "I was pretty upset," said Dane. "I feel that gay students should be open as to who they are just as heterosexual students are."

A recent report shows that Dane and Garcia’s experiences are indicative of a common trend in California public schools, even in districts that have adopted the state’s anti-discrimination policy. Released in January 2004 by the California Safe Schools Coalition and the 4-H Center for Youth Development, University of California, Davis, the study looked at harassment of students for gender nonconformity. The California Safe Schools Coalition is a network of experts and advocates working to implement the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act, which became law on January 1, 2000.

The Safe Place to Learn study found that such harassment is widespread. According to the report, 200,000 (7.5 percent) of California students said they had been harassed for identifying as or being perceived as lesbian, gay or bisexual; while 27 percent of students reported being harassed for gender non-conformity (i.e. girls who were perceived as masculine or boys who were perceived as effeminate). Almost half of all students in California say that schools are unsafe for LGBT students.

The study also analyzed the impact of such discrimination on students. Those who experience harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation are more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe, more likely to be depressed, to consider suicide, or to make a plan for suicide. They are also more likely to have low grades, use drugs, or be victims of violence, according to the study.

The authors of the study found that not only must there be clear anti-discrimination guidelines to protect students from harassment on the basis sexual orientation and gender, including gender identity, appearance and behavior, but that those policies must be publicized and that teachers must be trained to prevent and respond to harassment.

Nevertheless, the three trustees refusing to implement the anti-discrimination policy in their district say that allowing individuals to define their own gender offends their religious beliefs. They have expressed fear that the policy would encourage transsexuals to promote alternative lifestyles in school.

Though the three have faced stiff opposition from their other two colleagues on the board as well as hundreds of parents and teachers, trustees Blossie Marquez-Woodcock, Judy Ahrens, and Helena Rutkowski do have some support. "This is not about discrimination," Stephanie Erickson, whose son attends school in the district, told the LA Times. "This is about preventing a law that allows the homosexual agenda in the classroom…. Someone has to have the courage to take this fight on."

Reverend Lou Sheldon, of the Traditional Values Coalition, a Christian advocacy organization that condemns homosexuality, bisexuality and other gender non-conformity as "deviant" and immoral, also supports the board majority. "These children are not ready to play those kinds of roles, transgender and transvestite," Sheldon told the AP. "I respect the school district for what they've done."

On another front, angry parents and teachers have initiated campaigns to recall two of the trustees who have voted against complying with state law. According to the LA Times, the district's PTA council president, Louise MacIntyre, has ordered posters, lawn signs and buttons for the recall. MacIntyre says there are over 100 volunteers for the effort to gather the necessary signatures to recall Ahrens and Marquez-Woodcock. Rutkowski's term is set to expire in November.

As the only district in California to resist the state anti-discrimination policy, Westminster is being watched closely by social conservatives and progressives alike. Both camps consider it a test case for how strict the state anti-discrimination law will be and whether or not other districts will be allowed to write their own version of the law.

Jennifer Pizer, a staff attorney for Lambda Legal, an organization working to achieve full recognition of civil rights for LGBT people through litigation and other advocacy, told the Times, "The trustees are trying to carve out of the education code an important type of protection. They are trying to insist on gender conformity and withhold protection from young people who know they’re different. It’s very harmful for young people to take away from them the ability to identify who they are."

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